I wasn’t born yet when I became a refugee for the first time.
A man ran into our home while I was still in the womb, to tell my mother that her son had been killed trying to secure food. He warned her to flee to a displaced persons’ camp.
My mother refused and was still holding my baby sister when men stormed our home. They shot and killed my sister, who was still an infant. What sin of politics or history could she have committed at that age?
My mother gripped her body to shield me, her unborn child. She was shot in the hand and fell to the ground. The death of my sister did something no bullet or death could do to her.
When the men left, my pregnant mother, still bleeding from her hand, carried my dead sister more than 30 miles to a displaced persons’ camp in Somalia.
I was born premature, displaced from the womb, prematurely battling history and politics to stay alive. My mother was too famished to breastfeed me, her body infirm with the shrapnel infection corroding her hand, nerve damage that would leave her blind in one eye. I was raised on maize in a stick hut, with a UNHCR tarp that never stopped the water from coming in.
I have no memory of those early days, just stories about how beautiful Kismayo was in that period of historical limbo, after colonialism but before the next chapter of conflicts.
Life had returned to a tense peace after the 1991 civil war, following the overturn of the Barre government. In reality, Somalia only knew peace once in the 1970s, way before I was born.
Still, the sound of gunshots reminded us of the war outside our home. The people we lost – brother, sister, father – were an everyday reminder that the conflict would always be close to home. Kismayo no longer looked like the city of the stories we heard around fires in the camp – the histories of women who formed inter-clan armies to fight for liberation from colonialism. Clan identities now turned neighbors into enemies.
My first cousins, who were my age, were my best friends. We were like sisters, and managed to play like children, despite all the children in the camp too shattered to be children. Nothing was normal, but that was normal. Living between home and a refugee camp, peace and war, displaced from any feeling of true safety, displaced from your former selves, you have nothing to compare normal to. Then you do.
When I was six years old, a massive explosion shook our home. Smoke invaded the tent, forcing us onto the roads. Outside, bodies were everywhere. I knew what it was to be displaced from home, but in that moment I was displaced from my own body. I stood alone, looking at the dead. I could tell from my mother’s face that she was screaming as tears rolled down her cheeks, but I couldn’t hear her screams, not in that moment. Now I can never forget the screaming of her voice.
People were running around, lost, signaling people to help, then collapsing to the floor. Suddenly my senses came back all at once. The smell of petrol, the sight of blood, the voices of people screaming as they carried dismembered children, women and men, followed by the piercing sound of bullets. My numbness went away as hands wrapped around me. My mother had picked me up as I screamed, gripping me so that her nails dug into my back.
Now we were escaping the violence of our home into the uncertain violence of the bush, with no water and no food. Emptiness signaled our direction forward into darkness. Uncertainty was our safety. I didn’t even know what we were running from. Sometimes, the ringing sound of bullets reminded us why we were running.
My mother held my mouth so tight that I couldn’t breathe. When she released her grip, the air would flood over my sweating face as she lifted me off the ground, moving from hiding spot to hiding spot. I remember her pulling me to her chest so hard I couldn’t move and I fought back against her hands. Over my mother’s shoulder, a girl I had seen before was on the floor, blood coming out of her mouth. I screamed, then my mother’s hand covered my mouth again.
The normal that wasn’t normal in the camp seemed better than this new normal, as days turned into weeks on the run. Women would talk about going back to the camp that was my birthplace, but people said that it had been destroyed in the fighting. We never knew who to trust, because the less people at any given camp meant more food for those who were there. We were all so hungry and thirsty that people wouldn’t think twice about letting people die, just for food.
So we kept moving forward. Eventually we were taken to what I would later find out was Kenya. Kenya, for us, was a barbwire camp. My body fought illness adjusting to the conditions in the early days in Dadaab. So many times no one thought that I would make it. I did make it though. So far that is what my life has been – making it in spite of all expectations.
I went to school in the camp until I was around 13 years old, despite the hunger of once-a-month food allotments split between so many people. I was so thin, I looked like a skeleton. The standard of beauty was bigger women, which was a concern because who would marry me? That concern didn’t last long, because at 13, I graduated from school into marriage, to help my family.
I had my first child a year later. News of my son’s birth traveled back to Somalia, to my husband’s family there. A letter returned from Somalia informing my husband that I was from a minority clan. Marriage between an upper and lower clan was unheard of, except for some very brave people. Those who defied the positions of clan would be exiled no matter what clan they were from and would probably end up in Dadaab regardless of conflict.
When the letter arrived, I was living in Ifo camp away from my mother and other kin in Hagadera, a separate camp in the Dadaab complex. My family wouldn’t hear the brutal beating I was subjected to in response to that letter. They wouldn’t have to see as it continued night after night.
I became pregnant with a second child. People often ask why women continue having children under such circumstances. Do you think women have much choice? Even though I had no choice, I still hoped that giving my husband a second child would stop the brutal beatings. I thought that maybe his mother would stop joining him in reminding me of my position – no position – every day.
After my second child was born, that hope faded between old bruises and new ones. The physical and mental abuse became worse. I don’t even know how my body made it through the pregnancy. My son is a miracle.
One day my husband’s brother beat me so bad, in front of my children and the entire camp, I barely survived. I ran my hands through my hair, as my head cover fell to the floor. Sweat was bleeding down my face in blood. I was so fixed on the faces in the crowd, that I didn’t even move when his foot smashed into my hip.
“Hooyo, get up. Get up, hooyo.” My son’s voice sounded like strength. I steadied myself to my feet and everything faded into his face, when I felt a large container smash into my head. I was face down in the dirt. Men finally pulled my husband’s brother off of me. If they hadn’t, my death would have been my last defense.
I stumbled back to our hut and fell to the ground, with barely enough energy to cry. My children’s screams drowned out my own whimpering. I just stared out into nothing. My oldest son put his hands on my ears, and suddenly I was six years old again in the bush. His touch gave me strength.
In that moment, I decided I was going to go back to my mother. She would be disappointed in me for leaving my husband, but my death would be an even greater disappointment.
My thoughts were interrupted when my husband walked in, ordering me to get up. He pulled me across the dirt floor. I pressed my weight against the ground with what was left of my strength. He got down to my level, grabbing my legs and pulling me toward him. I kicked my feet trying to loosen his grip and back away, when I felt his teeth pierce me. My body just dropped back to the floor. I couldn’t win. I couldn’t try. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t scream. I pulled my breath into the pain, holding it against my teeth and screamed from within.
If you are waiting for UNHCR protection workers to come rushing in to intervene, so were my children and I. That’s not how it works though. There is no intervention without a report. There was no report, so there wouldn’t be a need for an intervention.
As soon as the sun came up that morning, I intervened for myself, not for my life but for my children’s lives. I hobbled in excruciating pain to the Save the Children office. I was told that someone would be in touch soon to go over my case. I have been waiting for “soon for over a year.”
I had to plead my case for a divorce. I was decreed a “talaq” [repudiation], at least from being physical property, but that didn’t mean I was safe. A week later, a random man in the camp handed me a message. “You bitch, you thought you could leave me. Me! You will return my children to me. Your dirty people won’t raise them to be like you,” it read. My hands shook like my elderly mother’s, without control (but when did I ever have control over my own body?).
I was advised by people in the camp to reach out to friends overseas. The men who snuck out of the camp to do odd jobs collected money for me to make calls. I reached out to the only person I knew abroad, my first cousin in the United States. It was strange to connect over such space and after so much time. She understood the urgency of the fear in my voice and wired money for me to buy a cell phone so that we could be in touch whenever I needed to. I didn’t know what that would do, but still, it felt comforting to hear her voice again, to be able to reach out and talk to someone. “Ayaan,” she would say, “we are going to get you out of there. You can come here and stay with me. I will get you here to the United States.”
Since Trump’s election, I’ve read articles and heard people talking about the “Muslim ban.” Let me clarify this for everyone. We refugees, especially us in Africa, have no way out. I have been a refugee for my entire life. How do we get a visa, when we have no passport, no identity? We aren’t students, nor do we have specialized skills to get special visas. Being a refugee is not like how it’s depicted in the movies or discussed in the press. We are put here for a reason, to be forgotten about.
The calls and messages from my husband stopped for about two months. I wouldn’t call it peaceful, but still it was nice – just the children and me. I enrolled them in a religious study program, because we didn’t have money for school. At least there they would learn to read and write, socialize and make friends.
Then a man stopped me in the Hagadera camp and said: “I am meant to tell you, your ex-husband’s family sent him back to Somalia.” In that moment, it seemed as though the universe had at last delivered me a break, and a smile came over my face. It soon vanished. “He’s back in Ifo camp now,” the man continued. “He has a gun. He doesn’t keep it with him. So don’t try anything. They pass it around between people. He wants his children.”
“He will wait, but when the opportunity comes he will get you, then take the children to Somalia,” he said. “If you go back to Somalia without him, to try and escape, you will be killed. The elders will find you.” I never had any hope of going back to Somalia, so I wasn’t worried about that, but the threat of my husband finding me in the camp, while I was gathering wood, walking, or in the night, was very real and very terrifying.
My phone rang a few nights later with a call from private number. No one ever called me on the phone except my cousin. “You are dead, the children are going back with me. Give it time. Give it time.” It wasn’t my cousin. I had no idea how he got my number.
Immediately, I called my cousin. I tried to speak but the only language I had was tears. I broke down like I had never been able to do before. I didn’t need words. Every Somali woman knows this language. We are too strong to ever voice it to one another, but we all know the silent hours where we speak in universal sobs into the emptiness. We never knew what was ahead of us in life, but now my life looked even bleaker than just unforgiving exile. “I survived all of this, all of this, just to die like this,” I told her.
I removed my children from school. It wasn’t safe. I felt like was condemning them to live my life in that decision. My cousin sent me money. Some people in the camp told me to go to Nairobi, that I would be safer there. A man took the money and bought me a bus ticket. I was directed where to go to beg for work. The bus journey offered a momentary relief, but then all I could see in the scenery was guilt that I had left my children behind me in the camp, hidden away with friends and my mother.
In Nairobi, I worked as a servant for no pay, just a place to stay and food. I would wake up before the sun came up and go to sleep long after the sun disappeared. Some days, the work was continuous, and I wouldn’t even know that a new day had begun.
When you have nothing but vulnerability, exploitation is all you know. Without an identity card, we refugees have no identity, and no one is responsible for what happens to us. When people take advantage of you, who do you call? The Kenyan police? The first thing they will ask you for is your identification card. If the police direct you to UNHCR, they will ask why you left the camp. You will be interviewed, they will write a report, then you will be sent back to the camp. The next report will be of your death.
We work in the shadows of Kenyan society and what happens in the shadows never sees the light. The U.N. celebrity ambassadors don’t talk about it. They protect the idea that the international community is a light, rather than a mountain in our path.
I ate better scraps than in Dadaab, which was the only good thing about the work. Yet my stomach fought a sickening feeling of guilt as I ate the food, thinking of my children’s hunger back in the camp. My eyes were always fixed on the leftovers thrown away. I wanted to dump out the rubbish into parcels and send it to them.
I would cry myself to sleep every night, think of my children, and contemplate the journey to the ocean. Every Somali refugee knows of the underground migration routes. They run from Kenya, Uganda, Somalia and the Sudan, to Libya and Egypt, then to the sea, to Turkey, Yemen or Europe. I think everyone would like to make the journey, but it is expensive. Every day, it seemed more like the only option left. I didn’t have the money though, or a way to make the money, without putting myself in even more danger.
One morning, I was sent out to the market to pick up some items. A man approached me, “Ayaan?” he asked, holding up a phone with my picture. “You are Ayaan. Ayaan, I knew we knew where to find you.” I was confused. He handed me an envelope. “I will have my children back. See you soon,” it read. I looked around for the man, but he was gone, lost in the crowd.
My phone rang a day later. A friend from Hagadera camp put my mother on the phone. “Your husband is looking for you, Ayaan. Why wouldn’t you tell him where you were going?” she asked. My mother was becoming senile. I kept asking her, “Mother, who did you talk to? I was divorced, don’t you remember? Are the children OK?” She said, “Ayaan, you should come home, we miss you.” I asked her to put my friend back on the phone. She told me someone in the camp told my mother: “Your daughter’s husband has a gun, he’s waiting for her. They know she is in Nairobi.” People talk a lot and everyone knows everyone’s business, because everyone lives on top of one another.
If I had ever doubted that these were empty threats, meant only to make sure I always lived in terror, these two incidents convinced me otherwise. I knew it would be a matter of time. I could run nowhere.
I sent a message to my cousin in the United States to call me. I begged her to take my children to the United States. Through a friend, we got in touch with women’s rights activist Jason Jeremias, from Price of Silence, who connected us with international donors and people in top positions for UNHCR in the region. Eventually, I got a call from the U.N., asking me to come in for an interview. After several weeks of waiting and a second interview, they said they would work out a plan to get me an official identification and into a work program in Nairobi. At that point, I would agree to anything, as long as my children could safely go to school.
Two weeks later, I received another threatening phone call, “If you don’t want the children to die like you, you will bring them to Ifo camp. You will give them to my mother. I know where you are. I know who you talk to.” I was so broken by this point. I didn’t feel safe in Nairobi. Where could I go? I had no identity, no passport, no money and my life was closing in on me.
While waiting for the U.N., I eventually fell sick. I tried to work, but I could barely stand. Working in the shadows doesn’t offer a good health plan. My sponsors put me out on the streets. It wasn’t safe to be out on my own in the streets, especially at night. I waited until the last moment I could, before taking a bus back to Hagadera camp, where I now live in hiding from my ex-husband with my two children and ailing mother. I pleaded with my cousin to send me money to go to Libya, but she didn’t have the money.
This is where I am now and what is left of me. I give you my story, because in it there are answers, if you can hear me and decide to answer.
This essay was adapted from interviews with Ayaan by women’s rights activist Jason Jeremias, conducted daily over the course of a week and a half in July in Hagadera, part of Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. Their conversations took place in a blend of Somali and English and were translated by Berlin Muhammad. Ayaan, whose other names are withheld for her safety, approved the final draft of the essay.
You can contact Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org.